How to pick HSC subjects

May 31, 2018

How to pick HSC subjects

By Sally Payne, Associate Dean of Studies, UTS Insearch


“What subjects should I take for my HSC?” is a question I often get asked by high school students and parents. With more than 100 HSC subjects, plus 50 language courses and a dozen vocational education courses to choose from, there’s no easy answer.



So, in a word, I’d say choose passion. Your son or daughter should select subjects that make them happy, ones that interest and even inspire them, and motivate them to put in the hard work. Avoid the temptation to push them in a particular direction.

At the same time, they should cast their net widely for opinions on subject choice. As well as parents, they should be encouraged to ask older siblings, teachers, counsellors, career advisors and people in jobs they admire for advice.

Teachers will also know which courses lead to particular careers - such as taking Visual Arts if a student wants to go into Fashion Design. Then it is up to the student to weigh the opinions and make their decisions. It’s important not to choose a course because a favourite teacher is teaching it or a best friend also wants to be their classmate.

Don’t forget, there are no “female” or “male” subjects. Girls can - and should - study Engineering if it interests them, just as boys take Community and Family Studies and succeed.


Keep in mind that students can’t just select any courses randomly and get an HSC. The NSW Education Standards Authority has requirements that students must meet to receive their HSC.

These include:

•             a preliminary pattern of study in year 11 with at least 12 units, and

•             a final HSC pattern of study that includes at least 10 units

•             at least 2 units of English is compulsory

•             6 units of Board-developed courses.

In Year 12, students can either continue with the same subjects for Year 11 but count their top five to get an Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR), or they can drop a subject and study 10 units in total (including English). Dropping a subject doesn’t mean failure. It actually frees students up to focus more efficiently on their other remaining subjects. This shouldn’t mean more video game time though!

Scaling and Extension

The level of courses students take is also important: don’t choose courses because they apparently scale well. The Board of Studies adjusts scaling every year based on the cohort, so it is not wise to pick a course hoping it will bring success just by “scaling them up”. Instead, a trusted teacher can give a candid opinion on a student’s past performance and ability to tackle a particular level course. It’s better that your son or daughter take English Standard and really do their best than to struggle through English Extension if they’re not interested in the course content.


While English is the only compulsory course, students should check if their preferred university degree has any other prerequisites or recommended HSC courses. For example, some universities require students going into Engineering to have passed Maths Extension 1 and Physics. Chemistry is recommended if they are choosing Civil, Biomedical or Environmental Engineering. Nursing students are encouraged to have completed at least one Maths and one Science HSC course.

Major Work

When selecting a course, it’s also vital to look at how each course is assessed. Some courses such as English Extension 2, Drama, Visual Arts, Software Design and Development, Design and Technology and Industrial Technology each require students to do a major work and keep a journal of their progress. In this case, time management is key and this mode of working may not suit everyone. Students will also have to balance working on their major work consistently with assessments for other subjects.


Choosing the particular subjects for a student’s HSC comes down to their own goals and aspirations - whether they want to go to university, TAFE, do an apprenticeship or work. Today there are pathways to university which may not have been available when you were planning your education. According to the Mitchell Institute, currently only 25 percent of school leavers get into university solely on their ATAR.

UTS Insearch, the pathway to UTS, looks at students’ HSC results from their top four Board developed courses (including English) in assessing eligibility for a range of diplomas which offer the same learning outcomes and progress path as first year university.


Author: Sally Payne, Associate Dean of Studies, UTS Insearch

Prior to becoming the Associate Dean of Studies, Sally was the Program Manager for UTS Foundation Studies and the Diploma of IT where she was responsible for the academic management of the pathway diploma program and of the UTS Foundation Studies program. She is the Chair of the Academic Teaching and Learning committee and leads the Quality Assurance program for UTS Insearch courses. Sally also oversees the scholarship and professional development committee for academic staff and is responsible for Academic Advisers and learning support programs.

Sally is also the mother of three children who have completed the HSC in the past seven years.


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